The anthropology of an isolated Pacific Island that sits 2,200 miles west of Chile has been the focus of decades of research by scientists connected to the University of Wyoming, and a new reference book summarizes their findings.
“Skeletal Biology of the Ancient Rapanui (Easter Islanders),” published by Cambridge University of Press, was edited by George Gill, a UW professor emeritus of anthropology, and Vincent Stefan, a professor of anthropology at Herbert H. Lehman College in New York.
Easter Island, the most isolated inhabited island in the world, is the source of many questions for scientists. No one knows who the first inhabitants were or where they came from, nor do they know what led to their decline. Perhaps most famously, no one knows how they erected the island’s huge, iconic stone statues with oversized heads, which still stand today.
Gill, who wrote or co-wrote seven chapters in the new book, said continuing research is adding to the understanding of Easter Island and its first inhabitants.
“We learn a lot about the human capacity to adapt through this kind of work,” he said.
According to Gill, the modern era of research on Easter Island began in the 1950s, when an international team excavated a number of sites and found many well-preserved human skeletons.
William Mulloy, UW’s first anthropologist, was a member of that expedition. After Gill joined the UW faculty, they decided to return to Easter Island to continue excavating skeletons for future study.
The Easter Island Anthropological Expedition, which took place in 1981, was also aided by Sergio Rapu Haoa, an Easter Island native, museum curator and UW graduate. Mulloy died before the expedition took place.
The expedition received international attention, with a photo of Gill kneeling in a cave surrounded by skeletons published around the world.
The group recovered more than 300 skeletons from burial sites that might not have withstood future development.
“If somebody stumbled on them, they could be disturbed, so we wanted to start with those,” Gill said.
The skeletons are still available for research today, which Gill said is important because technology is continually changing.
“Every year, something comes along,” he said.
Throughout the following decades, research continued on the Easter Island collection. The process is slow, Gill said, but it does yield information.
“It takes us a couple decades to really squeeze all the information out of these bones, but we did get some really dramatic results,” he said.
Stefan, a former student of Gill’s from Rock Springs, measured the excavated skulls and compared them with Rapanui and Polynesian skulls from other collections around the world. According to his research, the Rapanui are most closely related to people from Mangareva and Tuamotus to the west.
Scientists theorize the Pacific islands were populated as people sailed east from Asia.
“They were sailing east like all these groups were, finding island after island after island,” Gill said.
Based on examinations of the skulls, Gill theorized the Rapanui also had a connection to the native inhabitants of Peru, one of Easter Island’s closest South American neighbors. Perhaps, according to his “sojourner theory,” a Polynesian group sailed all the way to South America, then encountered Easter Island on their return voyage.
Recent DNA analysis lends credence to this by showing a thread of Native American ancestry in the group. Gill also points to cultural similarities in stone carvings and folklore as support for his theory.
“They’re clearly a Polynesian group that’s tied to the Mangarevans mostly,” Gill said. “We’re not changing that — it’s been knowns for years — but we’re adding to it. That’s breakthrough stuff.”
Other chapters discuss tribal differences on the island, with skeletal measurements showing that the groups had some separation, but less than previously thought. Analysis of bone injuries among the skeletons suggest that inter-tribal warfare was more about dominance and less about destruction.
“They are pretty doggone similar from one tribe to another,” Gill said.
For Gill, the curiosity that drives his research into the lives of people of the past might be the same curiosity that inspired those people to sail into unknown waters.
“It shows human resourcefulness and what people in the past, with very limited resources, could do — and therefore what we are capable of,” he said.